Sleeping Bears: On Personal and Political Trauma
ON JULY 18, 2016, I was half-watching the opening night of the Republican National Convention in my living room, grading papers. From time to time, I glanced up at whomever was speaking—they were almost exclusively white men in suits, blending into one another, yelling angrily at the crowd, which often responded with its own angry chants—and I rolled my eyes. Until I noticed my two children—Hank, five, and Stella, seven—loudly singing “London Bridge,” while they built Legos on the beige rug:
“Take the key
and lock her up!
Lock her up!
Lock her up!
Take the key
and lock her up!
My fair lady!”
They sang with gusto. Even, I would say, joy. The late July sun split the blinds; their father was grilling chicken thighs on the back porch. This was their life, and mine, and it was, by all accounts, lovely, warm, and safe.
What are you guys building?” I said, curiously, to my kids, with their busy hands, the sun on their faces.
“A jail,” said Hank. “For the lady they want to lock up.”
“Yeah,” said Stella. “But who’s the lady, and why do they wanna lock her up?”
“Hillary Clinton,” I said, stunned into the bald truth.
“The girl?” said Stella.
“Yes,” I said. Then I reached for the remote, and turned the television off.
I tried to forget that awful moment in my little house. But then, the debates brought it roaring back. During the second, I allowed Hank and Stella to sit with me, briefly. Five minutes in, Trump began bellowing about beheadings in his rambling, incoherent response to a direct question about a sexual assault he was on record as having committed, against the actress Arianne Zucker. Hank stood up in his Halloween pajamas, clutching his comic book, announcing, “I’m going to my room.” I should have followed suit. But he came back in no time, asking me who these people on the television were.
“Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” I replied.
“Really? Donald Trump and the girl are real people?” he asked, incredulously.
“Yes, and they are debating, right now, and her name is Hillary Clinton,” I said back.
Stella, sitting on my other side, said, “In school, we watched a show, and the girl in the show looked at all the presidents, and she said, ‘Where are the girls?’”
I sighed. For months, that was how it went. Lest anyone continue to doubt that we construct gender, my children’s discussion of the election should put the matter to rest. We don’t watch cable news, but we do listen to National Public Radio in the car—even with its somber, tempered tones, and devotion to the decency of naming, Hank, who has a wild acuity for language, speaking in full sentences at thirteen months old, always referred to the 2016 presidential candidates as “Donald Trump and the girl.” The girl always came second. Stella remembered Clinton’s name about half the time. Neither of them, though, ever forgot the name Trump, and said it often, usually accompanied by a question about how bad he was, and then why he was so bad. That same month, a friend and colleague’s three-year old daughter overheard her parents discussing the election with their typical frustration, bordering on barely suppressed fury. “Are you talking about a bad man, Mama?” she asked.
“Yes, baby, we are,” her mother replied.
“Trump?” her daughter asked.
“Yes,” her mother replied.
“Trump’s scary, mama. You know what else is scary?”
“What, baby?” my friend asked.
That Halloween, Hank dressed as Freddy Fazbear, a character from the video game Five Nights At Freddy’s, a demonic, animatronic bear. I can’t make heads or tails of the game, but he loves it. He spends hours playing it, both in its electronic form, and imaginatively, with his friends, each of them taking different roles as the hours go by, making up crazy stories and acting them out. By contrast, Stella went as a Shopkins cupcake. While the costume was adorable, and we dyed her hair bright pink to match, I felt a twinge of unease, purchasing it. Shopkins are the most inane toys I have yet to come across in this strange adventure we call parenting— they are consumerism, shrunk and animated. A series in miniature: smiling strawberries, frowning soaps. Grinning lipsticks. Winking telephones. Saucy hats. Flirty tall boots. Initially, I was mildly offended by the anthropomorphization of hard goods, its gross exploitation of, and connection to Capitalism (It’s ALIVE!). Upon closer inspection, though, I noticed something else—each of these objects, these characters, I should say, is stereotypically feminine, done up in pretty bows and ribbons, lips pursed, eyelashes elongated and fluttering.
The takeaway? Hank is hellbent on inserting himself into narratives he loves, on being a player. Stell’s options, as she’s presented them, involve a devotion to shopping so intense, the objects on the shelf talk to you. Flirt with you. Love you back.
At our bimonthly trips to Target, each kid is allowed to choose which gummy snacks we buy, bearing the faces of various cartoon characters. Hank, as a “typical” boy, is awash with options—Ninja Turtles, Mario Bros., Transformers. Don’t get me wrong—Stella watches, and loves, those shows, too. But they are almost entirely dominated by male characters. Some of them literally have no girls, or women, at all. When it’s Stella’s turn to choose, she has two options that include women: Hello Kitty and Frozen.
You heard me right. A three-year old movie about an ice princess and a cat that either can’t, or won’t, speak.
She usually chooses the cat.
We live in an unusual household, in some ways. We have a blended family—I’m not Stella’s biological mother, Vincent isn’t Hank’s biological father—and I am the breadwinner, the formally educated one. I sometimes feel that keenly, by which I mean I feel the judgment of others in our small community. Vince has stretched ears, and lots of tattoos. He’s an apprentice at his brother’s tattoo shop, where he is also the piercer. By contrast, I am an assistant professor at a public university. At work, my views on gender, race, and economics are pretty standard fare: I believe that gender is constructed, and fluid, that there are more than two genders and that transgendered people have the right to live as the gender they choose. I have loved women; I cross the queer spectrum. Like gender, I believe that race, too, is a social construct, and often spend agonizing weeks using Fields’ & Fields’ Racecraft to teach this tricky concept to rooms full of mostly white, often conservative students. To be clear: I am a white, middle-class woman. I undoubtedly do and say stupid, privileged things all the time as a result of this. But I am lucky enough to work at a place where my extraordinary colleagues, who run the gamut from Indian-American anthropologists who specialize in contemporary Islamophobia to queer feminist sociologists to brilliant mid-Western feminist soccer mom rhetoricians, educate me about the realities of lives I’ve never lived, and do so kindly.
At morning drop-off, at our kids’ school, though? I am a bit of a freak. Before the 2016 election, this didn’t matter much to me—I probably, obnoxiously, wore it as a badge of honor. I moved back to the hometown where I grew up after graduate school, to start teaching at the local public university, and rolled my eyes at the provincial nature of many of my classmates, now grown, now parents. Admittedly, I thought my views made me better than them. I had been elsewhere, seen the world, and had come back. I was happy to give anyone an earful about politics, gender, race.
Once Trump declared his candidacy, though, everything changed, and quickly.
People I had thought were rational—conservative, maybe, but decent human beings, and surely immune to a charlatan—attacked me on social media as a racist for posting pictures against Trump. A local politico told me frankly to “shut the fuck up and stop whining.” Half a block up from my little house, in our New Jersey beach town, a neighbor raised the Confederate flag high over their home; a local attached two enormous American flags to his blue pick-up truck alongside his Trump stickers. At the school’s 2016 Halloween parade, a friend I grew up with, a police officer, had dressed his child in SWAT gear; I stared in horror. By the next Monday at school, I noticed he stopped speaking to me. I went to order a Clinton/Kaine campaign sign for our porch, and Vincent said, “Are we sure we want to do that?” Horrified, I realized that maybe I did not.
For the first time in my life, I bit my tongue.
My frequent and unabashed use of Facebook as a political tool certainly exacerbated this. More than once—the afternoon, actually, after the second 2016 presidential debate—I have vowed to go off of it.
“It’s making me sick, I think,” I said, that day, on a phone call with my department mentor from school, wiping tears from my eyes. I hadn’t slept. Hank had coughed all night long, and crawled into bed with us, cramming me up against Vincent, my limbs stiff and sweaty. The cats bounced around the dining room. I had ended the night on Facebook by noting my admiration for Clinton’s blazer. I was going for cheeky, but probably, I sounded drained. I felt drained. A Mason jar sat in front of me on the coffee table, empty of its whiskey. In Philadelphia, my younger sister, a level-one trauma nurse who also holds a degree in gender studies, was probably doing the same thing. Earlier in the evening she had texted me, “This debate requires whiskey.” Later, she wrote back, “I am in tears.” By that point, I was also on the verge of weeping. Hank had fallen asleep on the couch, across my legs, which themselves fell asleep.
I stared at the screen. During a post-debate interview, Rudy Giuliani wasn’t so much speaking as keening to a pundit about Donald Trump’s “locker room talk,” and Bill Clinton’s rape of Juanita Broaddrick. I was so angry. I couldn’t move. I believe with all my heart that Bill Clinton did rape her. He probably raped other women, too. I’ve read extensively about her story; it checks out. And I speak from the unfortunate experience of surviving my own rape, in the spring of 2005, and from the further unfortunate reality of helping dozens of friends, colleagues, and students through the same awful experience. And there I sat, in the literal and spiritual dark of my living room, listening to a man exploit Broaddrick’s nightmare, while at the same time brushing off Donald Trump’s braggadocio about sexually assaulting women. I had spent part of that same afternoon arguing on Facebook with a colleague, and then a cousin, about the ludicrous nature of holding Hillary Clinton responsible for her husband’s mistakes, his crimes. I was a survivor of domestic abuse, at the hand of Hank’s father, for years at a time—did they hold me responsible for his behavior?
But look how Hillary blames the victims, they said, look.
They thought they were making a different argument than mine, but they were not. By the time I left Hank’s father for good, I knew for certain he had been sleeping with minors. One girl was 16-years old. He met her at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I did nothing. I told no one. Moreover, his ex-wife had desperately tried to warn me about who he was, early on. Rather than listen, I scorned her, insulted her, dragged her name through the mud. Now, she’s a trusted friend, but then?
I trashed her. To anyone and everyone who would listen.
Should I be held responsible for that behavior?
Of course. I was a grown woman. I behaved like a fool. But I was also being seduced and manipulated by a genuine psychopath, a pathological liar who, before two years were out, would destroy my life: estrange me from my family, threaten to take our son from me, force me to have sex without consent, ruin my professional and personal reputation with slanderous lies, and nearly kill our son, driving around out of his mind on drugs, more than once.
And that’s only about half of it.
That October 2016 day, my mentor listened to me talk, and quietly cry, about feeling overwhelmed. I was sleepless, haunted. She said, “I can’t see you getting off of Facebook. It’s so much of who you are, being an activist, speaking up. I think the issue is more that every part of your life—personal, professional, creative, critical—is overlapping, at the moment. You can’t get a break. Every moment becomes a political question.”
Every moment becomes a political question. Anyone invested in any kind of activism knows the old adage that no one is free when others are oppressed. And yet, when you become involved with a psychopath, those rules suddenly change, because all you can think about is how to escape, and remain free of, the psychopath. I thought of that, watching Hillary Clinton attempt to have an actual debate with Donald Trump, and watching Trump’s farcical “press conference” before the debate, starring the women who were victimized by Bill Clinton, and one who claims to have been victimized by Hillary Clinton. My Facebook feed lit up with condemnations of Hillary Clinton’s supposed bullying, or even just ignoring, of these women. And, maybe rightly so.
But I can tell you that I have been with a man who threatened to take everything away from me if I told people what I knew about him.
So, I didn’t tell anyone. For a long time. Because I was terrified of what he might do to me. Of what he had already done to me. And even now, five years out, as a university professor, in a loving relationship, surrounded by friends and family, with zero contact with him, I’m still afraid. And I’m not alone. I’m not alone in my fear, and I’m not alone in feeling, over and over again, that maybe I should just keep quiet. Others feel this too—when I began writing and publishing, in excerpts, a memoir about living with a psychopath, a retired dean at my university made a point to contact me and tell me to rethink it—be careful. Think of what you have to lose.
During the second debate of the 2016 presidential election, my Facebook feed was awash with people saying they wished Hillary Clinton would “just not even engage with the crazy stuff he says.” I even found myself wishing it—Don’t take the bait, Hillary. And again, felt the wretched familiarity of living with an abuser creep back into my life. Hank’s father was past-master at baiting me—he would take a conversation he had with my mother, or sister, and use 1/100 of its truth to twist my head, and heart, into angry knots I could never unloose: maybe my mother said I was stubborn, sometimes difficult. Maybe my aunt said I tended to procrastinate. In his mouth, normal criticisms family members make to one another became poison darts: I was lazy, pathetic, a spoiled bitch, mentally ill, and everyone knows it. I was fucking crazy. I was dangerous.
At the time he was saying these things, I was the brand new mother of an infant, teaching twelve credits of college composition, and maintaining a household. It’s ideal to ignore them, to “go high” when someone else “goes low.” That’s precisely what friends and family would tell me to do, too—just ignore him, just don’t take the bait. And often, I didn’t, for hours, or even days at a time. I went about my business: nursing Hank, cleaning the house, grading papers, teaching class, all the while being told, over and over again, by the man who claimed to love me above all others, that I was a completely worthless person. Without value. Fat. Ugly. Gross. A pig. Stupid. Unfuckable.
And sometimes, I would explode. I would yell. I would cry. I would slam doors. I would tear at my hair.
If you would not, congratulations. You are officially a better person than me.
Or maybe you’ve just never found yourself in that situation.
Or maybe you have, but the terror you felt was too great.
Watching that debate, I felt a sudden and anguished desire to watch Hillary Clinton lash out. To use all of her huge smarts and what must be, has to be, years of suppressed rage, and just be out with it. To tell Donald Trump exactly what he is. To own to America exactly what her husband was, and is. To really see her, once and for all, see the wreckage of living with an abuser, and coming out on the other side of it.
But she may not be on the other side of it. She’s still married to him.
And why? I watched so many people ask. Why didn’t she leave him? Answer that!
I am always amazed at this question, when it’s asked about Secretary Clinton. We know, over and over, why so many women stay married to their abusers, or to men who cheat. We know the statistics about the violence—physical, emotional, psychological—when they leave, or even try to leave. We know how this worsens when they have children with their abuser. We know how many end up dead, or back in the marriage. We know how little support we give the average woman who attempts to leave—the way we more often slander her, abandon her, instead.
I know it, firsthand.
And yet, we expected the First Lady of the United States to dive headlong into a messy divorce from the leader of the free world like it was no big deal: a shrug of her shoulder pads. And we still hold her accountable for staying. Just like we still hold her accountable for her husband’s actions.
I remember that feeling. I still live it. Recently, my father said it to me again—You brought him into our lives.
And he’s right. I did.
Don’t poke the sleeping bear. That’s what my aunt used to say to me, about Hank’s father, when he was using heroin, or drunk, or just in an inexplicable rage.
He never needed a reason. And neither, it seems, did Donald Trump, or his supporters, many of whom cheered during that debate when he began spewing furiously at Hillary Clinton about the special prosecutor he will appoint if elected, for the sole purpose of indicting and imprisoning her. When Clinton responded that it was “awfully good” that someone with his temperament is not in charge of the United States, he replied “Because you’d be in jail.” A lot of people laughed at this, or laughed it off.
For me, it had a special terror. Like me, my ex was a writer, and incredibly smart. Hank doesn’t come by his acuity for language by accident. My ex wielded words like axes. During one of our worst fights, he screamed at me over and over again that I was a lazy, worthless bitch. I finally rose from the couch, withdrew a dollar bill from my wallet—change from the money he’d given me earlier––and flung it at him, saying Here. Take it all, then. I’d never been so angry, or so sad. I’d never felt lower.
Until he called the police, and told them I assaulted him. The police, not being idiots, saw right through it, but it put the next string of horror show threats into place, from my ex, and they were all legal in nature. He was going to imprison me. He was going to press charges against me. He had called child protective services. They were coming to take Hank from me. His parents had gotten a lawyer. He had gotten a lawyer. Lawyer up, fast, you bitch, he texted me, screamed at me, emailed me, sometimes fifty or more times in a single 24-hour period.
My rational brain told me none of this was true, or even possible. But it didn’t prevent me from spending hours on the phone with a police dispatcher, begging her to tell me if he could actually achieve any of this. No, she said, no, of course not, but when you live with the past-master of gaslighting, your reality wavers, shakes, falls away. Maybe it wasn’t just a dollar bill? Maybe I had hurt him, somehow? Maybe I had thrown something heavier, and forgotten it? Maybe I was crazy? Maybe I am crazy. Maybe—
Finally, I ran away, at the crack of dawn, to safety. To my eventual life as I know it, from which I write to you, this morning, in the summer light of my office, at Stockton University, where I am blessed to teach. Where I teach alongside a dear friend who, in October 2016, was only just leaving a situation much like my own. She was over for drinks the night after the debate. We stood in my kitchen while I made salad. I said, How was class?
She said, Terrible! I just can’t believe how that debate affected me, I just can’t believe how much he’s like––
She trailed off. I nodded. I told her about the women, so many of them, texting me, messaging me on Facebook, all survivors of domestic abuse, all saying the same thing—I am sick watching this. I have lived through this. I encouraged her to join a support group I belong to. She said, But, I’m just living day to day! and my heart broke. I remembered that feeling, that sense that at any given moment, he would come back, and steal it all away. And he would be proved right—I am worthless. I can’t do this. I am lazy, and stupid. I’m a shit mother. No one’s ever been a worse one. I’m not a real scholar. My degree is Mickey Mouse. I’m unlovable.
And now? Now that the election is over? Now that Trump is the president, and Nazis march through college towns? I feel it every day:
Someday, someone will find me out for the loser I am. And they will come for this, for all of it—goodbye beloveds, goodbye little house.
Don’t poke the sleeping bear—but the bears are everywhere.
So tenuous, this hold we have on the things we love—that evening back in July 2016, as the crowd chanted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” and my children sang along, I was grading essays on Medea, a woman who thinks she has the protection of the state, but learns that without her husband, she has nothing. No citizen. Just a woman, helpless before the law’s arm, derived from the patronymic, which she stands outside of, nameless, stripped of all power. We would do well, as women—as Americans—to recall how terrifyingly recent women’s agency is in the first place. How Black women, and women of color generally, have had to wait even longer for it. How we’ve all only just been granted the right to be citizens, at all. I write this from a place where part of the time, I teach Women’s Studies—what further proof do we need that this agency is tenuous than the reality that we needed an entire discipline to prove, continually, via scholarship, that we women are, in fact, actual human beings, worthy of equal treatment under the law?
Now, imagine—you’re Hillary Clinton. You’re a woman with immense power, and wow, do people hate you. Swaths of them have called you a devil worshipper, a liar, a lying bitch—still more are calling for your imprisonment, absent a trial.
Do you feel secure? Do you feel safe? Half the country was aligned against you. A little boy and his sister heard your chanting mob of detractors and suddenly sang “London Bridge.”
Do you feel safe?
But you’re not Hillary Clinton. You’re just a woman. You’re someone’s sister. Someone’s mother. Someone’s daughter.
You’re Medea. You’re no one.